Dido Harding is serving her country – and there are 4,000 positives to be taken out of that

Turns out the test and trace system is ‘world-beating’ after all. It’s more popular than Glastonbury

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Friday 18 September 2020 09:25
Matt Hancock defends appointment of Baroness Harding as new health body chief

The incredible story of how a woman called Dido Harding came to be in charge of her country’s testing programme during a once-in-a-century pandemic, despite having no qualifications for the role, really begins a very long time ago.

Would she have got the job had she not already been made chair of NHS Improvement in 2017, despite her having to step down from her previous role as chairman of TalkTalk  – when four million of her customers had their personal data stolen by two 15-year-old boys?

Would she have been made chair of NHS Improvement if she had not already been appointed a Conservative peer in 2014?

Would she have been appointed a Conservative peer in 2014 if she and her Conservative MP husband John Penrose had not been great chums with then prime minister David Cameron?

Would she have been great chums with David Cameron if she had not hung out with him at Oxford, during the (still ongoing) period in the former prime minister’s life in which you only really got to be his friend if you had parents who would buy you a £3,500 morning suit solely to be worn while smashing up the backroom of unsuspecting country pubs?

And would she have hung out with David Cameron at Oxford if she had not been born, 52 years ago, to the 2nd Baron Harding of Petherton?

All these are counterfactuals. We can never know the roads that were not taken, only the one that led us here, to where Baroness Harding of Winscombe was sitting before a House of Commons select committee, explaining how, actually, it turns out that the coronavirus test and trace programme, contrary to everything you’ve read, seen, heard, lived and breathed, is actually going really, really well.

Of course, there is no reason to doubt the baroness’s business acumen. It is not her fault, for example, that on her watch in 2010 and 2011 TalkTalk twice won the This Is Money website’s “wooden spoon” award for Worst Customer Service, voted for by customers. And it must also be somebody else’s fault that she thought it was a good idea to agree to pose for photographs holding the wooden spoon in question.

Then there is the story of the testing programme itself to consider, whose timeline is roughly as follows.

January 2020 – deadly pandemic breaks out.

February 2020 – World Health Organisation issues three word advice: “Test. Test. Test.”

UK’s deputy chief medical offer Jenny Harries responds by saying: “There comes a stage in a pandemic where testing is not an appropriate intervention.”

March 2020 – Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer,  advises people with coronavirus symptoms to self-isolate at home and don’t get tested.

April 2020 – Matt Hancock decides testing is in fact important. Launches drive to “100,000-tests-a-day” target.

May 2020 – Matt Hancock announces his own success in reaching his 100,000-a-day target, which turns out to have been through putting 35,000 tests in the post the previous day.

Dido Harding is put in charge of test and trace programme. Boris Johnson promises it will be “world-beating”.

July 2020 – government starts bribing people to go to pubs and restaurants, and threatening people with redundancy if they don’t go back to the office.

August 2020 – infection rate begins to soar. People going to pubs are blamed.

September 2020 – schools reopen. Infection rates rise to more than 4,000 a day. The “world-beating” test and trace system is running at full capacity. Parents in London with coughing children are advised to drive them to Inverness if they want a test. If they don’t get a test the child can’t go to school and the parents can’t go to work.

Dido Harding tells a House of Commons select committee: “I don't think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we've seen over the course of the last few weeks.”

In fairness, did anyone foresee schools going back? Does anyone really know what time of year it happens? Just like A-level results, these things are a mystery to us all.

Rarely do even the most excruciating select committee appearances get off to as bad a start as this one. Harding had been talking for barely two minutes before she had to explain she had no real idea how many people were trying and failing to get a test. The system capacity is 250,000 a day. The only way to know how oversubscribed it is by measuring “how many people are visiting the website and calling the number”.

She did acknowledge that there would be some “double counting” involved here. Which indeed there would be, as anyone who has ever tried to use a website or call a phone line that is not capable of coping with the demands placed on it. Between the years 2011 and 2019, for example, I would estimate that I personally represent over a quarter of a million people attempting to buy a ticket for the Glastonbury Festival. One would hope a “world-beating” test and trace system would have rather more robust metrics in place for gauging how many people in the country think they’ve got coronavirus.

We would learn, again, how testing capacity will, in theory, double to 500,000 by the end of October and the start of winter, which is also the point at which Harding estimates 500,000 won’t be enough.

At one point, the committee chair, Greg Clark, patiently explained how having to wait two days for a test, and then wait a further two days for the result, and in the meantime, those who you’ve been in contact with also wait four days to find out if they also need to be tested, means that the system is failing.

“I strongly refute the system is failing,” came the reply. Trouble is, to “refute” something means to prove it to be false. Refuting is something you have to actually do, not merely say you’re doing. And Harding had spent the previous hour accidentally proving beyond doubt the thing she was now strongly refuting.

At this moment, she was also asked quite how it was that she came by the job, despite having no qualifications for it, and her most recent, most high-profile position had come to an end in very public disgrace.

An answer emerged about her long career in “large, consumer-facing services” like Sainsbury’s. She hadn’t applied for the job. She’d been approached by the government. She was just “serving her country”. Helping out old friends. She had lots of transferable skills. Really it was just the government launching its own “I Can’t Taste The Difference” range and she was only too glad to help.

It is not worth the trouble to type it all out. There are already enough Apprentice interview-round episodes to be found on BBC iPlayer. Just, you know, she was taking a negative and turning it into a positive. Four thousand positives to be exact, and rising every day.

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